Sunday, February 7, 2016

Snow, ice and lights - two winter festivals of Hokkaido, Japan

For one week in February the city of Sapporo hosts a snow festival showcasing over one hundred snow sculptures and ice carvings. In a neighboring port city of Otaru, they also celebrate their cold winter with a festival snow walk. Best of all these two events typically fall on the same weekend.

Sapporo is the capital of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, which is famous to the ski community for its cold, dry and abundant snowfall therefore making a great home for a snow festival. To fully appreciate each festival, you'll have to venture out at night - so come prepared with plenty of warm clothing.

Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri)

The festival began when a group of local high school students created a few snow sculptures in Odori park. Sixty-six years later it has evolved into a massive festival with three main areas drawing two million visitors a year. The Odori park features the large snow sculptures, over a hundred "smaller" snow sculptures, concerts, ski and snowboard competitions and other performances. The Susukino Site is located close to Odori park and features over a hundred ice sculptures on the streets. Further out of town is the Tsu Dome Site featuring snow tubing and more snow sculptures. We weren't able to visit this last area since it was too out of the way. The event is free so feel free to check it out multiple times (like we did); just don't skip a visit at night. One of the highlights is viewing the large snow sculptures illuminated at night.
Our travel adventures with Peter in Japan.
From the Sapporo TV Tower you are able to see down the festival's main area - the 1.5km long Odori park.

We did a walk through Odori park and the adjacent Susukino Site during the daytime admiring the sculptures, watched artists put the finishing touches on their pieces and kept warm with Japanese style carnival food. It was definitely worth visiting during the daytime. The crowds are manageable and you're actually able to admire the many sculptures without losing the feeling in your toes.
One of the main sculptures.
Of course there was an anime snow sculpture
The finishing touches on the international contestants sculpture competition.
I haven't seen many ice sculptures, but some at the Susukino Site are awesome.
Q tried okonomiyaki.
Fresh crab grilled over charcoal in its own shell. A definite winner in our books.

A return night walk through the festival gave us an opportunity to watch the snowboarding competition and to admire the amazing animations on the larger snow sculptures.
Susukino Site's Ice sculpture. Best place to find outdoor bars.
Our favorite sculpture from the international teams - a crazy tuk tuk from the Thailand team.

The Otaru Light Path Snow Festival (Otaru Yuki Akari No Michi)

I find winter to be completely romantic. Strolling the streets of a Japanese town at night by the warm glow of candles set in the snow and ice, in my opinion, this might be the most romantic festival I have ever been to.
Each area had a unique design.
In the Temijasen Kaijo area, close to the former abolished Temiyasen railway line. A volunteer photographer was helping the line of tourists take photos.

Right from the train station platform, snow lanterns warmly greet visitors and help guide you to the two main attraction. The are two main areas (Unga Kaijo and Temiyasen Kaijo) are beautifully illuminated and both are walking distance from the train station and each other. The lanterns are kept lit between 5-9pm by volunteers for ten consecutive days. This event is free and open during the day but best seen at night when it's illuminated. It was difficult to illustate the beauty of the town by only a few photos. These are just a few of the many we took.
In the Unga Kaijo area by the Otaru Canal.
Natural elements like leaves and flowers were incorporated into the ice lanterns.
Different styles of sculptures lit up different areas.
One area was decorated with ice owls

The whole town gets in on the action. Shops, churches and the schools make use of the large snowdrifts at their front door and have fun with it. It's worth a stroll around the town in order to discover the fun creations the locals have constructed.
We found a little ice igloo outside a restaurant.
Even the Colonel got in on the fun.

It is cold outside so wear your Sorel boots, wool socks and bring along a thermos of tea. There are a few warm treats along the way. Some entrepreneurial people sold grilled seafood along the street. Another person was grilling mochi and giving it out for free! Just hanging out by the warm grill was already a treat. We followed up our two hour walk with an amazing dinner of warm soup and cold soba at Yabuhan. The Japanese menu and restaurant full of locals was a clear sign we were in the right place for some authentic soba and the whole meal exceeded our expectations.
Grilled seafood along the street.
It was as cold as it looks.
The soba was so good that we couldn't be bothered with slowing down for a photo.

Other sightseeing in Sapporo

In case you were wondering, Sapporo beer is from Sapporo. With only two full days in town, we didn't set aside time to visit the factory or relax in their beer garden. We were able to fill our bellies with other local specialties. We grabbed a seat in one of the many restaurants along Ramen Alley for some local ramen and gyoza.
Looking for our lunch time "refueling" along Ramen Alley
Sweet corn and a knob of butter is the typical local additions to ramen.

Just outside of the city center is the Ishiya Chocolate Factory. We toured the museum, got our free cookie and indulged in more sweets before braving the cold outside. It was a nice way to spend a couple hours but wasn't the highlight of our day.
View of the factory is part of the museum self guided tour.

We strolled the downtown area checking out hipster coffee shops, video arcades and warmed up in the underground malls.
The underground mall: a perfect solution to get to the subway without losing a toe to frost bite.


Additional thoughts

For anyone considering a trip to Sapporo during the Snow Festival - book your accommodations early. We underestimated the popularity of the festival and waited until a month before our stay to search for accommodations. With all of the reasonably priced (and less reasonable priced) hotels fully booked, we considered ourselves lucky to find a bed and futon in someone's home. But truth be told, we found the Sapporo Snow Festival to be overhyped. On the other hand the Snow Walk is one festival we thoroughly enjoyed.